Light that breathes
Another Behnisch Architekten creation, this time developed in collaboration with SRG Partnership. First off though, as someone who for years has commented and critiqued Stefan Behnisch’s projects - starting with the IBN/Alterra headquarters in Wageningen, Netherlands (1994-1998) - I have to own up to being biased. All the projects of this world famous German practice propose the same perfect recipe that eschews passing fashions in favor of an appropriate spatial language in order to develop a technological, natural-energy-reliant machine. With a combination of rigor and clear aesthetic vision, Behnisch contrasts the powerful and the lightweight, color and matter to deliver an architecture that is music - a fascinating melody of pure harmonies. No mean feat this, of which few are capable. Everything is already there in the initial Behnisch sketch of a circumference of leafy branches (oxygen) dotted with human beings (carbon dioxide) woven together in a perfect continuum. The resultant program is of such obvious and apparent simplicity as to even seem naive, were it not for its complex construction demands and the even more intricate maintenance mechanisms to allow the building to withstand time and the elements. Designed in 2014 and completed last year, Behnisch’s intervention at the Karl Miller Center in Portland State University, Oregon, is both a requalification and innovation project. Internal space has been redesigned to include a huge central atrium where emptiness combines with the pulsating energy of light, the major feature of the whole program. A section of the University’s School of Business, the renovation and extension slip into the American urban grid of 61x61 m. The program joins a fairly unprepossessing 1970’s building of about approximately 9,300 sq. m and a new addition of about 4,200 sq. m via a five-story pyramid-shaped atrium that becomes a vibrant internal connection with all the other spaces in the building. Laid out on different levels to adapt to the different gradients on site, this enormous covered square is crisscrossed by staircases, ramps and balconies, is both a passage way and shortcut to the rest of the university campus, but also a social anchor point, a place to pass through but also one to hang out in - an important space where, as Kevin Lynch would say, decisions must be taken. And all this in a space flooded with natural light that pours in from above, is reflected and amplified in the extensive glazing, falls on the intensely colored wall and overhead walkways or becomes shadow, marking out the different spaces, all of them, however, open and interconnected. For everything is accessible and livable. The atrium is a beating heart, an architecture that is truly alive and breathing. The new addition exploits the temperate Portland climate to do away with the need for mechanical cooling systems. The air in the atrium is continuously changed thanks to a silent ventilation system that draws fresh air from outside through large, digitally or manually operable windows in the classrooms. Once in the atrium - a space designed to facilitate airflows - it moves upwards to be expelled by automated exhaust fans at the roof. The façades of the different volumes differ in the materials used, and hence in their performance. The renovated structure has been completely clad in a two-layer metal panel system pierced by large windows that provide natural daylight to all the university facilities for the most part of the year. The new addition is timber clad in strips of FSC-certified Alaskan Yellow Cedar, creating a singular feature that stands out sharply among the traditional brick finished buildings. The use of two such distinctively different cladding materials is a clever way of balancing the disproportional massing between the renovation and the new structure, this latter characterized by simple parallelepiped volumes offset on plane atop an exposed reinforced cement structure. The high-performance cladding, designed to protect the interiors from the weather, contrasts to great effect with the extensive double glazing installed mainly on the north side to harvest daylight without, however, causing room-side overheating. In fact, the whole architecture breathes, as if by osmosis, through its self-regulating skin, inhaling and exhaling in a system where light is the all-pervading factor. The Karl Miller Center is obviously also a place of teaching and learning. Yet the spatial hierarchy is so organic that the socialization space and connective tissue contained in the huge atrium appear the main teaching and learning area of the whole system. Spreading vertically and horizontally with a series of ramps, staircases and overhead walkways, this central focal point encourages students to go from one part of the building to another without taking the elevators. Since the teaching program is strongly oriented to interactive, multimedia methods, the facility has some 12 audiovisual-enabled classrooms. By the same token, great importance has been placed on acoustic design. To overcome acoustic nuisance on account of the large glazed walls, a series of insulated non-reverberating spaces have been created.